Last Updated on June 12, 2022
On December 14, 2019, while reading an article in the New York Times, my framing sensor slowly turned red. It was my first encounter with complex framing. Verifying that it was indeed a case of framing took less than two minutes, figuring out the mechanism behind it took more than two hours.
The article states that airplane emissions will triple by 2050:
On first reading, the message appears to be that in 2050, due to that growth, aviation alone will be responsible for a full quarter of all carbon emissions:
The confirmation that this is indeed framing of aviation as the Big Bad Wolf in the world of climate change only requires some basic knowledge and some very basic math. The annual contribution from aviation now is just over 0.9 Gt, and triple that would be 2.75 Gt in 2050. If that were 25% of all emissions in 2050, the statement in the New York Times would only be true if human CO2 emissions would have decreased from 42 Gt now to 11 Gt.
That is rather unlikely, because then nothing would have come of all concrete projects to reduce aviation emissions, such as Sustainable Aviation Fuel for medium and longer distances and a combination of electric and hydrogen for short distances. While all projects outside of aviation, including all tentative plans, would have been successful.
So, sufficient reason to look into this a bit further. Luckily, in their online material the New York Times provides links to their sources. It turned out to be a very different tale.
To cut a long story short: it is not about a quarter of the emissions in 2050, but of the Carbon Budget. And that’s cumulative. The cumulative emissions from aviation from now till 2050 would come to 27% of the available carbon budget, according to the NYT source. But according to the same source, you will not reach 2050 with that budget of 205 Gt, because it would already be fully used within five years from now.
The share of aviation in consuming the budget would be about 5 Gt, or about 2.5%. Certainly not nothing, but also not a make-or-break share. In any case it is rather strange to make aviation the focus of a campaign. In other words: this is classic aviation framing in a modern outfit. Good for them, because the framers managed to tackle even the New York Times. And nobody noticed it was foul play.
See the pdf ‘The Beauty of Aviation – Solutions versus Framing‘
for the illustrated analysis.